Making a Multipolar Carolingian World Work: The Treaty of Valenciennes (Nov 853)

The Treaty of Verdun, 843 – Lothar I’s realm in orange, Louis the German’s in blue and Charles the Bald’s in brown (source)

No student of early medieval history is unfamiliar with a variation of this map showing the division of the Carolingian empire by the sons of Louis the Pious at the Treaty of Verdun in 843. There are problems with it. It is too neat, leaving out Pippin II, who would battle Charles the Bald for possession of Aquitaine for decades to come. It also overstates the finality of the division. The brothers would war against each other repeatedly to try to redraw the map. In the years that followed, the kingdoms would be re-divided and amalgamated in new ways until Charles the Fat inherited the entire lot in 884 (with mixed results). Nonetheless, Verdun did indicate something important. The efforts of Emperor Lothar I to establish overlordship over the empire had been thwarted by the alliance of his younger brothers, Louis the German and Charles the Bald. In consequence, the Carolingian world was to be a multipolar empire in a way that it hadn’t been since 771. The brothers would rule their kingdoms independently, yet their territories were still conceived of as part of a greater whole, with members of the Frankish elite operating across the empire. That is simple enough to say, but making it work in practice was much harder. To get a sense of what that looks like, I’ve translated the Treaty of Valenciennes, an agreement made between Lothar and Charles in November 853:

Lothar I and Charles the Bald, ‘Conventus Valentianas’, in MGH Capit. II, no. 206, pp. 75-6.

 Declaration of Lord Lothar:

  1. Concerning the missi sent throughout the kingdom so that the people might have peace and justice. Concerning robbers, plunderers, brigands, and other wrongdoers, and concerning every aspect of justice. 
  2. That when missatici [a missi’s areas of responsibility] overlap, the missi should come together, and if someone should flee from one kingdom to another, or from one missaticum to another, they shall capture him together.
  3. That proof (OR a notice) is to be sent wherever they flee, so that the count may distrain him either with his hereditary lands, or through whatever means he can, so that he might return there and make amends where he has done wrong.
  4. That it should be recommended to the missi that they do justice; and that if they have not, that you ought to pursue it. 
  5. That if someone is in need, everyone should be ready to help each other in whatever way you can. 

Declaration of Lord Charles:

  1. Concerning episcopal pronouncements and the honour of priests.
  2. Concerning rebuilding churches and the ninths and tenths [the rent due from holding a benefice amounting to a fifth of the produce].
  3. Concerning the observance of the capitularies of lord Charles [i.e. Charlemagne] and of lord Louis [the Pious] concerning churches.
  4. Concerning observance of the peace and avoiding greed for and oppression of the goods of the Church and the poor.
  5. That we wish to arrange with the counsel of our fideles how we can live honestly and without want in our court, as our predecessors did. And we admonish our counts and other fideles, that they themselves should order their condition and life in such a way that their neighbours and the poor are not oppressed on account of their needs.
  6. Concerning harmony and mutual assistance between the bishop and the count for the doing of justice and the execution of the divine ministry.
  7. Concerning the justice to be strived for by our bishops, missi, and counts.
  8. Concerning the abduction and marriage of nuns, kinsmen, or others’ betrothed, such that what has been done in the past may be corrected in accordance with the advice and judgment of the bishops; and that every precaution should be taken in the future. 
  9. That if out of necessity we have done anything against churches of God, or against any of our fideles, we will most freely make amends for this as soon as we can. And from now on, if any of us should wish to injure his own peer, we wish to restrict this in accordance with the custom of our ancestors.
  10. Concerning our assembly and our common assistance against the Northmen and our fraternal discussion.

The big context for this is the development of an alliance between Lothar and Charles, which was a dramatic shift in the political landscape which had previously pitted the Emperor against his younger brothers. Lothar and Charles had met at Saint-Quentin in 852, campaigned together over the winter against a viking army that had entered the Seine (commanded by Godfrid Haraldsson, Lothar’s godson, which must have been awkward), before Lothar became godfather to Charles’ daughter in January 853. These good relations were helped by Lothar’s disavowal of Pippin II, who had been captured by Charles in 852, removing the largest stumbling block to an understanding. Lothar was preparing for his succession. He intended to divide his territories between his three sons, and wanted Charles to support them. 

Some of the text is concerned with the sort of things we expect from diplomatic treaties. Charles c.10 confirms that the two brothers would continue to cooperate against the vikings. Lothar cc.2-3 are effectively a ninth-century extradition treaty, promising that royal officials would aid each other in the pursuit of wrongdoers across their jurisdictions. But the majority of the treaty reads very weirdly if we assume we’re dealing with two sovereign states. Much of Lothar’s declaration is devoted to a commitment to the enforcement of justice and establishment of order (cc.1, 4). That of Charles is even stranger, covering subjects such as the state of the church and the poor (cc.1-2, 4-5, 9), the observation of previous laws (c.3), the abduction of nuns (c.8), the adoption of a simpler lifestyle (c.5), and a promise of redress for wrongs he had previously committed (c.9).

This all becomes more understandable if we think about Charles’ position. The decade after Verdun had not been easy for him, but by 853 he had reason to think that the rolling crises might be abating (he was wrong because ninth-century Carolingians are not allowed to have nice things). With the capture of Pippin, he could hope that he had won the war for Aquitaine. Peace had been achieved with the Bretons. The death of Emir ‘Abd al-Rahman II in 852 offered the prospect of quiet on the Spanish March. For the first time in his reign, Charles had a real opportunity to articulate a domestic agenda, and he seized it with both hands. This was a busy year, involving a synod at Soissons wrapping up the lasting effects of the defrocking of Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims, and a statement on predestination at Quierzy. His meeting with Lothar at Valenciennes was followed by an assembly at Servais the same month. The capitulary issued from there covers much of the ground from the Treaty of Valenciennes but in much greater detail.

As a statement of domestic policy, Charles’ half of the treaty makes a lot of sense. Ecclesiastical matters were a major priority for him that year. The text also serves to draw a line under the unpleasantness of civil war. Charles acknowledges that wrongs had been committed, offers a form of redress and restricts future conflict among his magnates. He also makes clear that he intends to return to traditional Carolingian rulership, by emphasising the legislation of his grandfather and father, and that he intends to live in a simple manner like them. The message is that after decades of instability, peace and good governance are back on the table.

Through the Treaty of Valenciennes, Charles effectively got Lothar to endorse his agenda. This mattered to his domestic audience. Happy days are here again is a more convincing message when your most powerful neighbour has confirmed he’s going to stop directly and indirectly undermining you and might start helping you with your viking problem. But it also served as a demonstration that the brothers were committed to making the multipolar Carolingian world work, by articulating shared ideological values and beginning to develop the legal institutions for cooperation. For a Frankish elite that still thought in terms of the entire empire, this was a welcome development, and provides a hint as to how this new adaptation of the empire might work.

Assessing the success of the treaty is a little complicated. Barring a wobble in 854, the alliance between Charles and Lothar lasted until the latter’s death in 855. That this did not lead to a glorious period of peace and stability lies more with the people the treaty left out; Louis the German and the Aquitanians. Louis was unsettled by the prospect of his brothers teaming up and angered by the prospect of being unable to take advantage of Lothar’s succession. The Aquitanians were much less subdued than Charles had thought. The two combined when prominent Aquitanians invited Louis’ second son, Louis the Younger, to become their king in 854. The result was a series of invasions that would push Charles nearly towards the end of destruction. The death of Lothar and Charles’ political woes made the treaty largely irrelevant. Nonetheless, it is fascinating as a window onto how the multipolar Carolingian world would be understood by contemporaries, and as a clue as to how external and internal politics intertwined in the period.

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